The taco-making begins with a whir and a screech. Late one weekday morning, Steve Santana, the bespectacled chef of Miami Beach's Taquiza, uses a power tool to deepen the narrow channels in two thick rock discs, which wear down every week while crushing corn into masa, the dough that becomes tortillas in this walk-up Collins Avenue taqueria.
A few minutes later, he wedges the stones into a waist-high grinder that roars to life with the flip of a switch. Soon, Santana begins feeding it sapphire-colored kernels that are pulverized into a flurry of gray-blue dust. He gathers the mess into what looks like an armful of Play-Doh and drops it onto a cutting board.
"Masa," he says a with a relieved smile while preparing the day's first tortilla. "Now we can open."
Taquiza, which launched in mid-October, was joined by Wynwood's Coyo Taco at the tail end of December and South Beach's Bodega Taqueria y Tequila at the beginning of the year. The three have embraced a deceptively simple mission: making tacos inspired by a tradition that shuns fast-food shortcuts. They eschew rubbery, mass-manufactured corn shells, bland iceberg lettuce, and industrial cheddar cheese in favor of made-to-order tortillas filled with ingredients like nopales, which are bittersweet squares of cactus flesh, and barbacoa, meat slowly cooked for hours with cumin, chilies, and coffee.
Giving these tacos a renewed, well-deserved moment in the spotlight is a level of dedication previously found only at a handful of Mexican restaurants in Homestead and at Andres Tovar's Viva Mexico in Little Havana, where the legendary carnitas are made from every part of the pig, layered into a massive pot, and left in its own fat for hours to become a kind of confit. What brings these restaurants together as the city's best purveyors of tacos is the fact that they take ownership of the process and smartly use time-honored techniques to lift the unpretentious dish to new heights.
At the heart of it all is the tortilla. The corn dough called masa, a staple throughout the Americas for thousands of years, begins with nixtamalization. The ancient technique, used even by the Aztecs, occupies most of Santana's day. The veteran of kitchens at Eating House, GastroPod, and the Broken Shaker cooks and soaks dried corn imported from Mexico in an alkaline solution that breaks down the skins before the grinding begins. The resulting tortillas come off the plancha a deep purple and with a slight sweetness that mingles with the dried corn's nutty, starchy flavor.
Santana fills them with cubes of spicy beef tongue so tender you'd swear the lean cut was ribboned with fat like a rib eye. Another offering features strips of charred poblano peppers called rajas. Their time spent on the grill adds a hefty dose of smoke accented by sweet caramelized onions and salty cotija cheese.
A few blocks over in South Beach, flaky, white corn tortillas emerge from a weathered Airstream trailer converted into a small kitchen tucked into a garage off Alton Road. At the 35-seat Bodega Taqueria y Tequila, the tortillas are trucked in from a family operation called Las Gemelas Food Store about 30 miles west of Lake Okeechobee.
Yet the focal point here is a pair of slowly twirling stacks of meat. The glistening, dripping columns of pork shoulder, layered with bacon, and chicken are both topped with a pineapple whose juices sweat down into the meat. The method is inspired by small roadside spots on the outskirts of Mexico City. "The meat was marinated overnight, then cooked for hours. I'd never seen or smelled anything like it before," says Jared Galbut, managing principal of Menin Hospitality, the company behind the Gale South Beach and Radio Bar.
Bodega already has a crowd flooding in nightly to munch on tacos while surrounded by vibrant teal tiles and jarring graffiti. (Until last week, a marquee posited potentially bigoted jokes like "How many Mexicans does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Though Galbut claimed the jokes fit the restaurant's lighthearted mentality, managers removed them after New Times questioned whether they were offensive.)
Some of the ten composed offerings at Bodega fall short. In one taco, the bits of chicharrón combined with avocado, red onion, cilantro, and a punchy salsa verde end up chewy. In another, charred pineapple and pink pickled onions add some moisture to a piece of grilled mahi-mahi that spent too much time on the grill. But the spit-roasted meats all shine, whether tucked into tortillas or layered onto tortas -- the pressed Mexican sandwich topped with mashed avocado, a slick of refried black beans, red onion, cilantro, and crema.
In Wynwood, at Coyo Taco's NW Second Avenue storefront with whitewashed walls and a long communal table, the composed tacos hit the mark each time. They don't overshadow the tortillas, which remain front and center thanks to the supremely focused tortillera who effortlessly transforms fistfuls of off-white corn dough into hundreds of them daily. Flipped into corrugated steel holsters, they're moist, sweet, and delicate but sturdy enough to stand up to an array of fillings, such as juicy cochinita pibil -- slow-roasted pork leg tinted bright red with the spice achiote and topped with pickled onions.
Coyo's offerings, which come by the pair, also include duck, which is cooked and crisped carnitas-style with Mexican oregano, Coca-Cola, orange juice, allspice, and cinnamon. There is also quinoa "falafel" bound with white cheese and dressed with a tangy, cilantro-flecked yogurt dressing.
"Most people expect tacos how you get them in Mexico, with meat and maybe a little cilantro and onion," says Coyo's chef, Scott Linquist, a Southern California native who was Dos Caminos' executive chef for more than a decade. "Each taco has what I think are the perfect condiments."
With all the ingredients that go into these tacos, it's obvious the ubiquitous high- and lowbrow staple has hit another high-water mark in South Florida. Great tacos transcend all the usual boundaries and even dietary restrictions.
Take, for instance, the woman enjoying a fried mahi taco at Coyo on a recent weekday. She tears into the freshly made flour tortilla, thinking all the while it's corn. When she's corrected on the ingredient, her eyes widen into a concerned stare. Even though she's gluten-free, she's unfazed.
"It's worth it," she says, "but don't tell anyone."
- Lengua, rajas, or carnitas taco, $3
Bodega Taqueria y Tequila
- Chicharrón taco, $3.50
- Pescado taco, $4.50
- Pork torta, $12
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- Duck tacos (2), $8
- Shrimp tacos (2), $9
- Alambre tacos (2), $7